Top TextArch Story of 2016

The general news media only pick up on text-archaeology stories once a year at most. The big story of 2012 was the emergence of a piece of papyrus containing what was supposedly a gnostic gospel with a saying by Jesus referring to "my wife." It looks like the huger story of 2016 will be the emergence of damning doubts about the provenance of that snippet.

Late on June 15, The Atlantic published an investigative story by Ariel Sabar linking the papyrus to Walter Fritz, a German man now living in Florida who has studied egyptology. Take the time to read this story, as it is likely to go down in history as one of the great pieces of text-archaeology journalism.

Christian Askeland writes in a comment on the usually authoritative Evangelical Text Criticism blog that Sabar was not in fact the first to identify Fritz as principal in the matter or flag his knowledge of Coptic, but adds in praise, "Sabar’s work is clearly original. The large majority of his presentation is material uniquely discovered by him."

A Google New search indicates French and Dutch media have reported this now, but the retail German news media have yet to pick up on this amazing back story, which has yet another back story behind it: the employment of Mr Fritz as director of the Stasi Museum in Berlin when he was 27 years old in 1991-92. The German freelance journalist involved, Petra Krischok, does not mention the story on her website.

What's also very striking to me as a journalist is how hugely difficult under restrictive German laws it would have been to expose this story if it had happened in Germany: the Fritz trail through company incorporations, land ownership and so on would have been unsearchable. All of this public registry data is treated as confidential under Germany's ridiculous Datenschutz laws. The new EU "right to be forgotten" law makes it even harder to track what someone did in 1991.

As a law grad I would also be interested to hear discussion of whether any of the alleged actions during the production of this papyrus to Professor Karen King of Harvard could possibly constitute a crime.

And as an observer of life, I am struck by the psychological issues here. Sabar suggests that King, so academically gifted, is perhaps a poor judge of real life. Watch Sabar on the video which is entitled "To Catch a Forger" (did The Atlantic's lawyer really okay that?) and you'll see that he is very much the writer, a bit shy. Read the quotes from Fritz and you are struck by the great emotional intelligence of such a person, able to yield slivers of truth in a patient bid to convince someone of falsity. The next step I guess is for one of the great tiger interviewers of the business to get Fritz into a TV studio.

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